Guest Columnist

We need the free press now more than ever

Cedar Rapids, city of. Public Library, Old (Carnegie Building, Museum of Art). Shown is the hallway of the basement stor
Cedar Rapids, city of. Public Library, Old (Carnegie Building, Museum of Art). Shown is the hallway of the basement storage area at the Cedar Rapids Public Library. Books not checked out from shelves upstairs might be stored here (left). Stacks of newspapers are seen stored at right. January, 1981.

While Americans focus on the coronavirus pandemic and the mounting economic crisis, top Republicans in Washington are taking advantage of this situation to attack one of the constitutional pillars of American democracy: our free press.

America’s founders knew freedom of the press was so important that they enshrined it in the very first amendment to the United States Constitution as part of the Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791.

Since then, our nation’s free press has defended and strengthened America’s constitution and our democratic way of life by keeping government officials accountable to the public for their actions in office. The free press serves as a watchdog of America’s free society.

As a Republican former Member of Congress, I have firsthand experience with the important role that journalists play, as I would face pointed questions from local reporters about my positions on key issues and votes I cast while in office.

Regardless of a reporter’s political affiliation, honest reporting of the facts helps inform the public about what actions elected representatives are taking to serve the public interest.

Why then, do so many Republicans attack the free press? Why does President Donald Trump call honest journalists “enemies of the people?” This is a slur that communist dictators use to justify brutal repression of their opponents.

Such language by the president is un-American and inexcusable.

However, instead of holding the president accountable for his words, as a Senator should do, Republican Senators tend to imitate Trump’s harmful attitudes toward the press.

For instance, in January, Republican Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) dismissed a reporter’s legitimate question, calling a respected reporter “a liberal hack” for asking if she would support Senate consideration of new evidence during the January impeachment trial.

Unfortunately, Iowa’s Republican Sen. Joni Ernst also showed the same kind of disregard for America’s free press during the impeachment trial, and I find this attitude to be repugnant.

If elected officials cannot, or will not, defend or explain their policies or their ideas to the news media because of personal political differences, this represents an attack on one of America’s most important institutions, and it is a dereliction of duty to ignore reporters simply because they ask uncomfortable questions.

Now, during the pandemic, millions of Americans depend on the news media more than ever for accurate and timely public health information, yet the economic crisis has hit local newspapers especially hard, resulting in painful cutbacks in staff, print editions ... and in some cases, coverage of important news.

To address this problem, four United States Senators, Democrats Maria Cantwell (Wash.) Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), along with Republicans John Kennedy (La.) and John Boozman (Ark.) are working together to ensure that local news outlets are eligible for economic relief like most other small companies are. As these Senators point out, “ensuring that local news outlets remain viable at this critical time is not only a matter of fairness, but is essential to public health.”

As a member of Republicans for Integrity, I am thrilled that some Republicans are working with Democrats in the Senate to protect our nation’s local news outlets. Such bipartisan cooperation is very important in this time of crisis.

I hope Sen. Ernst will support this bipartisan effort to help local news outlets despite her apparent allergy to the free press.

The next time United States Senators get questions they don’t like, perhaps they should try justifying their positions instead of attacking the reporter.

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Maintaining a thriving, free press will help safeguard America’s constitutional democracy. This is a goal Americans of all political stripes should endorse.

Claudine Schneider is a Republican former United States Congresswoman and is a founding member of Republicans for Integrity which brings together Republican former Members of Congress who seek to put “country before party.” She works with various national, non-partisan, watchdog organizations and was one of the founding members of www.VoteSmart.org, a nonpartisan resource that complements the reporting of our nation’s news media.

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